Chicago school reform’s life core is the power given to local school councils (LSCs) to select principals. School reform as legislated for Chicago assumes that the major stakeholders in a school community—parents, teachers and community members—have an enlightened self-interest in making a good decision because it directly affects their children. This one power makes the principal accountable to the community as represented by the LSC.

Utilizing this power, LSCs can end the reign of individuals who do not respond to the needs of their students, fail to ensure an appropriate educational experience in the school and/or are unresponsive to or oppose the wishes and values of the school community. It cannot be emphasized too much that of all the powers the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act gave LSCs, this is the most important.

It follows, then, that this power is the most controversial and the one most coveted by the central administration. After all, if the LSC’s power to select a principal makes him/her accountable to the LSC, the same power in the hands of the central administration would make principals accountable to the School Board—again. This has been the power the central administration has tried to grab many, many times since 1995. One only has to look at what has happened at Gale, Clemente, Davis, Taft and many other schools for examples of the usurpation of LSC authority in its most blatant form.

The central administration justifies its meddling by intimating that LSCs are incapable of picking good principals. As proof, they point out that LSCs generally select new principals from within their schools’ staff. While many think this has a negative impact on schools, no analysis has been done that shows this to be true. However, there is research that demonstrates that LSCs have done a very credible job of selecting principals who are effective educational leaders.

Choosing well

A recently released study by the Consortium on Chicago school Research indicates that LSCs have generally selected and retained educationally effective principals. According to the report, school reform has had an overall positive impact on Chicago’s elementary schools although its impact on high school is not yet clear. This first of a series of technical reports by the Consortium, “Across the board, for all elementary grades three through eight, the 1996 learning gains were substantially greater than in 1994 for both reading and mathematics.”

The report goes on, “Overall, our analyses indicate broad-based system-wide improvements in student learning, stronger in mathematics but also in reading. Moreover, we believe that these data, up though 1996, are a reasonably good indicator of meaningful changes in instruction and student learning because no high-stakes external accountability were associated with them.”

It appears that LSC members have successfully selected good principals. Why, then, are LSCs being challenged and this power threatened? Consider these reasons:

Governments and individuals who are accustomed to ruling absolutely do not like to share power, especially with “the people,” whom members of officialdom do not consider equals.

Principals appointed by LSCs are less likely to be manipulated and dominated by the central administration and do not necessarily respond favorably to threats or promises.

Independent principals can safely criticize the central administration because they do not have to fear losing their jobs.

Standing strong

How, then, can this conflict be resolved? It is unlikely that central administrators will ever acquiesce to the belief that regular people like those who sit on LSCs can pick good principals. They, therefore, are not likely to carry the banner for LSCs in Springfield.

We must depend on LSC members to work together to safeguard the authority with which we were endowed in 1988. It is only our collective strength that will save local control of schools and the power to select principals. The opponents of LSCs are strong They only respect and respond to an equally strong force. LSC members have effectively shown their strength in the past. There is no doubt they will have to show it again and again.

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